I have been a working horse logger for quite a number of years. When I first started I firmly believed that what I was doing was so fantastic that the world would beat a path to my door. However I soon realised that it would take some time to build the business.
Foresters, forestry managers and woodland owners no longer considered horses as a viable proposition if they considered them at all. There were still one or two of the ‘old timers’ working away on the Scottish Borders and in the Lake District but most horse loggers were like myself, relatively new to the job, untried and unknown.
I persevered, tried to make a name for myself and ensure that I completed work on time, to budget and to a high standard. I was not always cheap but we have all seen cheap work in woodlands. I have never tried to compete with cheap work. In fact, the cost equation is quite complex and woodland owners have to build in all sorts of additional factors to the actual cost of the felling and extraction like public acceptability, lower initial infrastructure costs and lower or no restitution costs.
Horses can work a complex, highly silvicultural thin rather than needing a non-selective line thin, are at ease with continuous cover management and can be cost competitive and effective, especially on smaller and more sensitive sites and can make do without stone roads.
As a horse logger I was also interested in the equipment used. The traditional British gears, usually called ‘trace’ or ‘long’ gears, are light, effective on the steeper slopes and are what I have used most in my work. When ground skidding pole length timber, using a choker chain or a skidding grapple, I have achieved some creditable outputs with the long gears and have been able to work very steep and difficult sites. There is a whole range of Scandinavian equipment used in this country, from Sweden mainly but also from Finland, and it is very well made and effective. It is also very expensive, the package of purchase price, import duties and freight driving the price up and discriminating against British loggers.
I have developed and built a range of equipment inspired by Scandinavia as well as one or two items of my own ‘invention’. In particular, I have spent the last four years or so developing and refining a horse drawn ‘Bracken Basher’, a non-chemical, mechanical way of controlling bracken. The beauty of this machine is that it gives me work during bird nesting time (an otherwise deathly quiet time of the year), it is effective and highly cost competitive. I have developed a ‘scarification harrow’ that works effectively in woodlands, riding over brash and obstacles whilst still harrowing the ground. I have also built and sold horse logging arches, sledges and a new swingle tree with quick release hook and in-built shock absorption.
One of the key pieces of modern horse logging equipment is the horse drawn forwarder. Unlike ground skidding with an arch or trace gears, a forwarder is a specially designed, forestry specific trailer for hauling round wood. Because it is a trailer it is able to carry larger loads over a longer distance than any other system. It keeps the timber cleaner and is amazingly manoeuvrable. There are several made and some have been imported and are being used in this country.
At the top end of the scale are large forwarders with hydraulically operated cranes that are capable of hauling three tonnes and that are pulled by two horses. At the bottom end of the scale is a simple arch conversion called a Kombi Drag. This is a relatively unsophisticated four wheel trailer but several are used to excellent effect in Wales, on the Borders, in Devon, Oxfordshire and elsewhere. In between these two is a fairly sophisticated eight wheel forwarder with ‘walking beam’ axles which make it very efficient - it can climb stairs - and makes it particularly suited for long extractions and soft sites. (Two are in Yorkshire working on a bog where they are the only viable piece of equipment.) These smaller forwarders are pulled by one horse.
Detail of wind-on brake positioned on rear axle.
When I first got to use one of these little beauties I had to load it onto a trailer to take it home. I reversed the trailer towards it, then got hold of the shafts and gave it a good pull. It ran so freely that it actually knocked me down and nearly ran me over! Put that onto a working site, take into account that is a heavy piece of equipment in its own right. Then load it with 1.5 or 2 tonnes of timber. Now ask your horse to pull it on anything but a flat or undulating site. Without brakes the horse cannot slow the load down - apart from using its own body weight leaning back into the breeching strap. It can not take a breather going uphill and, on a steep bank, is in danger of being run over (just as I was) or dragged backwards down the bank.
There are ingenious ways of having a vehicle self brake. I have a sledge which will automatically brake itself and any kit that ground skids has braking built in through sheer friction. The larger forwarders are designed to be ridden on and have a foot and parking brake. The eight wheel bogie wagons sit right in the middle. They have most of the advantages of the larger forwarders but without braking, on most British sites, they can be downright dangerous.
I have now developed and had built a Scandinavian inspired, British eight wheel bogie wagon with automatic override brakes on the front axle and a wind-on brake on the rear axle. The override brake allows for automatic braking on a down hill run, whether the vehicle is empty or loaded. It will come on progressively and take into account the steepness of the ground and the weight being carried, coming off automatically once the horse starts to pull again.
The wind-on brake on the rear axle is also progressive but manual. It allows for the horse to rest going up hill and, if faced with a long down hill pull, will enable the handler to wind on the brake sufficiently to hold the load back, if necessary by locking the rear wheels so that they are skidded rather than rolled down the hill. This allows for flexible and safe use of the vehicle on less than ideal terrain.
Prototype 8-wheel forwarder in action
This is the biggest development I have been involved in to date, it has taken more money, more time and greater imaginative and design leaps.
Woodland Heritage have very kindly sponsored a major part of the development costs and without their help I would not have managed to produce a working prototype. I am very grateful to Lewis and his Trustees for their vision and their generosity.
I would like to challenge Woodland Heritage readers to suggest a nifty, suitable and apt name for this machine. Answers, on a postcard, to me. The best suggestion may be chosen as the model brand name and the winner will be awarded a bottle of organic Port.
Childer Wood Heavy Horse Centre